Gregory of Nazianzus: An Unhappy Faith

In the Western church, there’s a prevailing sense that a right faith is a happy one. A lot of today’s bestselling Christian pastors/authors have founded their churches on the idea that God wants you to be happy. But is that the faith that has been handed down to us by Christian tradition? Or is it something else? In an age in which the average person is a functional materialist (only believes in what they can see), have we ceased to believe that we can find fulfillment by following the plans of a transcendent being? Is the shallow feeling of happiness so enviable in our age because it’s the closest thing our culture can get to a sense of spiritual fulfillment?

I don’t know. Clearly those pointed questions say how I feel, but rather than circle back around to conversations about secularism, I want to investigate a bigger problem with the Cult of Happiness: it’s built on straw. Life stinks sometimes. People get sick. Your friends die. You step in a puddle and get wet socks. Life just ain’t always great. Rather than try to pretend we can get through it without being sad, why not just acknowledge unhappy feelings and grow in spite of them? Not only do we see that repeatedly in Scripture (see the Psalms and Jesus for some prime examples), but we see that in the writings of one of the greatest saints of all times: Gregory of Nazianzus.

Those of you that have followed me for a while may remember my previous entries on Gregory of Nazianzus. His poetry is just magnetic to me. Beyond it’s beauty and theological content, he’s not afraid to express himself. Gregory is downright miserable at times. Translator Peter Gilbert goes so far as to suggest he might be diagnosed as clinically depressed if he were alive today (On God and Man, 2). This is the faith of one of the saints that helped us understand the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one.

Just look at this heartrending selection from On Human Nature:

…I keep an unchanging bent, while we rush
upon the sword in suicidal madness, like the swine.
What’s in fact the good of life? God’s light? But then
hateful and jealous darkness keeps me from it.
Nothing’s of any use to me. And what is there of no use to the wicked?
If only they were equally endowed,with troubles especially!
I lie helpless. Divine terror has bowed me…

93-99

YIKES!

The full poem is long, so I’ll give a little context to that excerpt: the poem opens with Gregory racked with anxiety, asking himself the big question: who am I (line 25). On one hand, Christ died to mingle his essence with the divine and lead him on towards holiness. He knows that! But on the other hand, he doesn’t feel particularly blessed. He describes himself as “a nothing… pommeled down by ills like a thing compacted” (line 43). In old age, his body is betraying him. It’s an “enemy that never lets up warring” (59-60), and he feels like he’s “carrying a corpse… locked in the hateful chains of life”(65). Where is this joy that was promised? Will it come? Was there a point to any of this?

Those of us hoping for a happy ending don’t exactly get one. He concludes his quest: “now’s a fog, but afterwards the Word, and you’ll know all, whether by seeing God or eaten up by fire… I headed home, laughing at my self-estrangement… heart in anguish smoldering,” (127-128, 130-133). This is not a happy man, but it’s still a faithful man. He ends this poem specifically because he knows he needs to trust God, even in his misery:

Stop. Everything is secondary to God. Give in to reason.
He did not create me in vain. I am turning
my back upon this song.

123-126

God didn’t create him for nothing. He moves forward in hope, even if he doesn’t feel particularly happy in the given moment.

This poetry is grim, and yet, I find it strangely compelling. It’s honest. I’ve felt these feelings. I’d go so far as to say that existential crises, self doubt, and unfathomable pain are near-universal experiences in this life. When I think about the preachers that are chasing happiness, I can’t even fathom them validating these kinds of emotions as legitimate. “God doesn’t want that for you! Seek joy!” But that advice denies the pain that we all know is real. Anyone who has lived knows that it’s painful sometimes. A saintly faith isn’t one that ignores the deep pains of the world. It’s one that sees the pain and weeps without giving up faith in God. Gregory knew pain. The psalmists felt pain. Jesus felt pain. The faith that’s been passed down all these thousands of years is a hard one sometimes. That’s ok. It’s part of the journey. To quote Rainer Rilke,

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Go to the Limits of Your Longing

We seek fulfillment in our eternal God, not a dopamine rush that might get us through another work week. When things are bad, it’s okay to be sad. It’s not a lack of faith; it’s honesty. We have to remember that God didn’t create us in vain and keep trudging on our way, trusting that in the end, God knows what he’s doing.

Metaphysical Wonder: Plato and Patristics

The more I learn about Plato, the more I realize that patristic theologians relied heavily on his work to talk about God. I’m reading through Confessions right now, and it’s absolutely littered with echoes and quotations from Plotinus, a prominent Platonist philosopher. For example, here’s his classic definition of sin (the decision to act for yourself, rather than in accordance with God’s will) side by side with Plotinus’s definition:

I directed my mind to understand what I was being told, namely that the free choice of the will is the reason why we do wrong and suffer your just judgement.

Augustine, The Confessions, p. 113, Trans. Chadwick

What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of them- selves and him, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it? The beginning of evil for them was audacity and coming to birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves.

Plotinus, Enneads, 5.1.1

Obviously not a one-to-one copy, but Auggie’s understanding is incredibly compatible with the leading Platonist voice. If you were a Christian, you’d be able to use Platonic logic to back up your points without too much trouble. Similarly, if you were a Platonist that wasn’t a Christian, you’d have some common ground with the Christian tradition if you were looking to convert.

Here’s another example. In this passage, Augustine is trying to describe how he thought about God interacting with creation.

I visualized you, Lord, surrounding [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge; and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are, and said: ‘Here is God and see what God has created. God is good and is most mightily and incomparably superior to these things.

Confessions, p. 115, Trans. Chadwick

The universe lies in soul which bears it up, and nothing is without a share of soul. It is as if a net immersed in the waters was alive, but unable to make its own that in which it is. The sea is already spread out and the net spreads with it, as far as it can; for no one of its parts can be anywhere else than where it lies. And soul’s nature is so great, just because it has no size, as to contain the whole of body in one and the same grasp; wherever body extends, there soul is. If body did not exist, it would make no difference to soul as regards size; for it is what it is.

Plotinus, Enneads 4.3.9.38

Whether we’re sponges or a net, there’s a massive entity in each example (God/soul) that exists as the water that extends in all directions and contains us. When Augustine wanted to talk about God, he used Platonic ideas that had been spread around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to get the job done.

It’s beyond obvious that these aren’t complete rip-offs. Augustine didn’t pop open Plotinus and start copying bits word for word. Nor are all Platonic ideas are even compatible with Christianity. The guy believed in reincarnation, for crying out loud. To be Christian, you had to admit that Plato got some of it wrong. But clearly Plato and his gang were often seen as people that got most of it right; they just needed a bit of tweaking to fully get there. Augustine credits the Platonists with giving him the logic that prepared him for the Gospel:

You brought under my eye some books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. There I read, not of course in these words, but with entirely the same sense and supported by numerous and varied reasons, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him nothing was made.’

The Confessions, p. 121, Trans. Chadwick

In other words, thank God for Plato’s books, which prepared me for the Bible.

Before going too much further, I do feel obligated to discuss the possibility that patrstic authors like Augustine were too influenced by philosophers like Plato and weren’t really looking at the Bible on it’s own merits. Totally untrue. Patristic sources quote the Bible constantly. Confessions is littered with Bible quotes. These were people that swam in the Scriptures; the assumptions they approached reality with were just very different than our own.

Plato’s work gave early saints the metaphysical concepts and language they needed to talk about God. Platonism had it’s own version of the trinity (the One, the spirit, and the soul). It explained how when we do good, we participate in God’s good actions, rather than act independently of our own ability. It gave the Eastern churches the framework for the doctrines of theosis (becoming like God through constant participation in his actions) and apocatastasis (all things eventually returning to God, really only common in Eastern Orthodoxy). Even the ways that classical Christian orthodoxy frames God as the timeless, spaceless, source of all being are built partially on the assumptions that Plato built. That philosopher gave ideas and language to Christian theologians that were desperately trying to find words to describe their God. In the words of Anglican theologian Dean Inge, “Platonism is part of the vital structure of Christianity, with which no other philosophy, I venture to say, can work without friction.” More aggressively, he wrote that there is an “utter impossibility of excising Platonism from Christianity without tearing Christianity to pieces,” (History of Western Philosophy, 285).

Maybe Paul’s disciplemaking trip to Athens in Acts 17 served a greater purpose than we knew! Maybe spreading the Gospel to Greek minds was God’s way of preparing the ancient Church for the metaphysical work ahead. Ok, technically Plato was known by academics throughout the Mediterranean region, and Plotinus (an Egyptian) specifically wasn’t even born until over a hundred years after Paul’s death. The quotes from above aren’t direct results of Paul’s venture to Athens, but I still think Acts 17 is a brilliant symbol to represent the early Church’s theological growth. The Gospel made it’s way to Greece and was spoken to and by a new people, gaining new expression in the process.

Obviously, the average person today doesn’t know a lot about Plato. I wonder if that’s why so many classical ideas about God’s nature are under attack. It’s fairly common (at least, in my circles) to hear someone say that God is subject to change (not timeless), that God is capable of making mistakes (not good), and that God chooses to let us make whatever choices we want to make without interfering (no participation). If we’re reading the Scriptures with today’s prevailing philosophies in mind (probably some brand of rationalism and materialism), God might seem remarkably human. He bargains with a merciful Abraham about the minimum number of righteous people left in Sodom and Gomorrah before he’ll destroy it (Gen 18). He regrets making humanity (Gen 6:6). He changes his mind about disasters that he’ll send (Amos 7). You get the idea. God is personified relatively often, and those personifications are commonly read by modern thinkers in unflattering, very mortal ways. In the patristic era, it was common for theologians to say, “Well, those stories are just symbols to communicate God’s immense, unfathomable ways to a limited, sinful, mortal people,” but that’s not a common response that I hear anymore. With the loss of a language to describe the things we can’t see, it’s hard for most modern people to imagine a God beyond our mode of being. If God exists, he must be like us, which leaves us why he’s worth worshiping at all.

We need a cure for our loss of metaphysical wonder. I don’t know that everyone ought to go read Plato. There’s a lot of stuff in there that the Church Fathers rejected in long, drawn-out, messy theology battles. We don’t need to start those up again! But we do owe it to ourselves to listen to Christian voices that had a common philosophical vision so different from ours. Their writings have gifts that we won’t find anywhere else, and they point us to a God that’s so delightfully other from our cultural imagination that we can’t help but stand back in awe.

Aquinas’s Prayer before Study

I’ll admit that sometimes my studying can feel detached from my devotional life (probably because I’m usually tempted to skip prayer to get to reading, which is never a good thing), but this week, I ran across a delightful resource to help with that. I started a new class (The Major Works of Augustine) and the professor read this prayer before we started:

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
lofty origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your brilliance
penetrate the darkness of my understanding
and take from me the double darkness
into which I was born:
an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding,
a retentive memory,
and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations,
and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Instruct my beginning
direct my progress,
and set your seal upon the finished work.

Through Christ our Lord,
Amen.

-Thomas Aquinas

There’s different versions of this prayer posted all over the internet, so if there’s bits in this one that you don’t like, feel free to shop around. I just thought it was a lovely way of weaving two strands together that are so often pulled apart: study and devotion.

What We Fight is So Tiny: Trust and Rainer Rilke

“God has a plan for all of us.”

That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:

It’s not all that Christian of me.

I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:

The Man Watching
Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on 
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, 
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny! 
What fights with us is so great. 
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm, 
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things, 
and the triumph itself makes us small. 
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us. 
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews 
grew long like metal strings, 
he felt them under his fingers 
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?

I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.

We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.

Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.

The Acts of Pilate: Jesus Conquers Hell

I’m doing a little class about the cross at my church, and this week we’re looking at the Christus Victor model of atonement.  It presents Christ’s death on the cross primarily as a victory over evil.  In ancient times, it was usually tied to the ransom theory of atonement (Jesus was given over to Satan/evil as a payment in exchange for humanity), so you can find these great old stories about Jesus going to Hell and wrecking everything to save the saints.

The book we are using for the study (The Sign and the Sacrifice by Rowan Williams) mentioned one such account from the fourth-century apocryphal book The Acts of Pilate (aka the Gospel of Nicodemus). Naturally, I wanted to read it firsthand!  Unfortunately, there’s no accessible copy online.  The best I could find was the version in The Apocryphal New Testament by Montague Rhodes James, published in 1924, which translates everything into Shakespearean English.  There’s thee’s and thou’s and all those other old words that make reading infinitely harder.  I went ahead and paraphrased the translation there so it was actually readable and I thought I’d share it.  This is not a translation!  It’s my attempt to make the James translation readable for a modern audience.  Feel free to check out the original here (at the bottom of p. 117).  I started paraphrasing at Christ’s descent into Hell (about halfway through The Acts of Pilate), and I stopped just shy of the real end of the text (I ended with Jesus leaving Hell, but all of the saints give praise and hallelujahs for a few more paragraphs).  This is based on the Latin A manuscript.

If you don’t know anything about apocryphal books or atonement theories, you might be asking, “Why on Earth would I want to read that” Well, it’s basically a fourth-century fanfiction about Jesus going to Hell after his death on the cross. He fights Hell (yes, Hell is a being in this one) and Satan, and he busts Adam and his friends out and takes them to Heaven. It may not be Scripture, but it’s really cool and well worth your time.

To make sure this isn’t the longest blog post ever, here’s a link:

https://classictheology.org/the-acts-of-pilate-christs-descent-into-hell/

Enjoy!

Sanctify this Work: George Herbert’s The Altar

I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!

George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”

I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:

The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.

George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3

That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.

In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):

It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.

I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.